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RAND: How to Do Personalized Learning With 'Imperfect Evidence'

Are you a K-12 leader who wants to embrace "personalized learning?"

Better have your eyes wide open, both to the lack of robust research supporting school-wide personalized-learning models and to the many implementation challenges they can bring, according to a new paper from one of the leading researchers in the field.

"There are aspects of personalized learning that seem to hold promise for improving the U.S. K-12 education system," wrote John Pane, a senior scientist and the distinguished chair in education innovation at RAND Corp.

But, Pane added, "early implementers of personalized learning are working with imperfect evidence, underdeveloped curricular resources, and policies that might hinder their efforts."

To navigate such uncertain terrain, Pane suggests school and district leaders need to hew to some basic guidelines. Among them: focusing on what research and learning science actually can tell us; committing to not throw out proven educational strategies, just because they're not new or don't require the latest technologies; and being willing to cut through unfounded hype and hyperbole.

What is personalized learning?

The new paper, titled "Strategies for Implementing Personalized Learning While Evidence and Resources are Underdeveloped," was published Tuesday. 

It doesn't include original new research on personalized-learning schools; instead, it's framed as a "perspective" from a leading researcher, based on what the RAND team has learned so far.

Pane starts by acknowledging just how nebulous the trend is.

"The specifics of personalized learning vary from school to school," he writes. "Practitioners and policymakers seeking to implement personalized learning, lacking clearly defined evidence-based models to adopt, are creating custom designs for their specific contexts."

But generally, the paper says such approaches revolve around letting students work on "content targeted to their individual levels of achievement" and trying to give students more agency over what and when they're learning. Increasingly, personalized-learning models are also focusing on such "whole-child" concepts as social-emotional learning and family and community relationships.

None of those strategies are particularly new, Pane writes; schools have long offered individualized education plans, data-driven instruction, tutors, and electives.

"Personalized learning can be viewed as a comprehensive school-wide integration and intensification of these ideas, across all grades and subject areas," he wrote.

Technology is helping make such scale possible, particularly by making it more feasible to track granular aspects of student progress over time.

Advice for school and district leaders

There's a fair body of research to suggest that specific aspects of personalized learning can be effective, Pane writes. For example, some adaptive learning software has clearly demonstrated positive effects on student learning.

But to date, he says, "the research evidence on personalized learning as an overarching school model is scarce."

In addition, groups such as RAND and the Center on Reinventing Public Education have been documenting the many implementation challenges experienced by schools trying out these new models. Among the biggest: poor curricula, conflicts with state policies around such issues as seat time, and a tension between the desire to let students advance based on the specific content they master and the deeply ingrained expectation that all students should complete certain courses.

Given those realities, Pane says, many educators may be prone to adopting ineffective practices. To help avoid that, he suggests that schools adhere to a number of principles, including: 

  • Embrace rigorous evidence where it exists. The Institute for Education Sciences' What Works Clearinghouse and the Best Evidence Encyclopedia at Johns Hopkins University are good places to start, Pane recommends.  There's also reason to believe that personalized tutoring from both humans and software can help children learn, Pane writes, suggesting the value of an approach "where students regularly engage with educators, even if technology takes responsibility for individualization of content and pacing."

  • Where rigorous evidence doesn't exist, align with principles of learning science.  Sometimes, this means sticking to general practices that have already been vetted, such as trying to keep students' focused on their "zone of proximal development," where learning activities aren't too hard and aren't too easy. Other times, though, aligning with learning science means being skeptical. The research literature "gives reason to be wary of some popular ideas in the personalized learning movement," Pane writes, including the notion of matching instruction to a student's 'learning style' and the idea that "students should be given maximum control over what they learn and their learning trajectory."

  • Focus on the productive use of students' time and attention (and teachers' skills.) School and district leaders should always consider the opportunity costs of what they're trying, Pane advises; what else could students be learning or doing? Likewise, school leaders should focus on making sure teachers' time and energy isn't wasted. 

  • Use rigorous instructional materials. Moving to personalized learning often means that teachers will seek out new materials and lessons. But some of these might not be well-vetted, and when teachers are cobbling together a variety of such resources on their own, students can have an incoherent classroom experience. It's also important, Pane notes, that schools don't throw the baby out with the bathwater when moving towards personalized learning. "Before shelving traditional materials, educators should consider how they might be redeployed in a personalized-learning classroom," Pane suggests.

  • Monitor implementations and be prepared to adapt. Even with the best of intentions, new initiatives sometimes come with undesirable side effects.  Given the lack of evidence, it's especially important to be on the lookout for such issues when moving towards personalized learning, Pane writes. Is moving to a "mastery-based" model of grading and advancement inadvertently leading to tracking students from certain groups into more- and less-rigorous trajectories? Is the desire to give students more agency leading some to avoid the hard work of learning? What compromises are you making in order to comply with district and state policies?

The bottom line, Pane writes, is that there is still a long way to go to determine whether personalized learning works, under what circumstances, for which children. That work will likely take years.

Until then, RAND suggests, the path forward for school and district leaders is to be strategic, focusing first on the specific components we know work.

"Implementing personalized learning is not as simple as picking some software and adding computers to the classroom," Pane writes. "Educators, principals, and district leaders need to ask hard questions about the software they are adopting, the quality of its content, and how it will be deployed in classrooms. "


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